Why Newcastle fans should be excited about latest recruit
Newcastle United have shot from mid-table mediocrity to UEFA Champions League competitors thanks to their impressive 2022/23 campaign. Much of their success was helped by the new-found financial backing provided by the club’s new owners, leading to some claims that the Magpies have bought their way into the top four.
Now, while it is true that they have spent money under new ownership, there are two major factors that completely destroy the notion of them only being where they are because of money. Firstly, the money they spent was spent wisely, with almost all of their signings contributing heavily to their Premier League campaign. Secondly, and sadly, money rules football today – the Premier League in particular: it is near impossible for a team who hasn’t splashed the cash on talent to break into the top four and stay there for more than one season.
While this is only the toon’s first season finishing in the top four under new ownership, we should expect them to be right up there again come May 2024 thanks to more expert work from Eddie Howe and his team in the transfer market.
Of course, by expert work in the transfer market, we are speaking of Sandro Tonali. The Italy international is on the verge of making the switch to Howe’s club for a reported fee of nearly £70m (including add-ons) and could be the marquee signing the Tyneside club need to establish themselves as a consistent force in the Premier League. This scout report looks at Tonali’s strength’s both in and out of possession in the form of a tactical analysis – an analysis of how he could feature in Newcastle’s tactics.
The analysis will also take some time to identify three potential replacements that could be of interest to AC Milan – they are losing a star midfielder after all. We have identified the potential replacements using TFA’s in-house similarity tool XGOLD. Not only does the tool help us find players of quality, but it also finds players who are similar to the subject player, meaning we can find midfielders who, theoretically, should suit Milan’s tactics.
Tonali brings the element of versatility to the midfield ranks, that’s for sure. Thus far in his career, his primary position has been that of a defensive midfielder, and occasionally playing higher up. Milan have played a 4-2-3-1 a lot of the time this season, with Tonali often playing in one of the deep midfield roles.
While he has spent significant time playing in naturally defensive positions, he shows no hesitation in bursting forward and supporting possession/attacks from a more advanced position. At times, it is like he holds the license to free roam, often popping up on either flank to support build-up play phases for his team.
In terms of attributes, Tonali is the embodiment of the term “well-rounded player”, possessing strong defensive ability while being more than effective in possession – with the physical traits to support involvement in both.
Where and how he fits into Howe’s tactics remains to be seen. Newcastle’s go-to shape in 2022/23 was 4-3-3, with one deeper midfielder. While there was some rotation and room for selection influenced by versatility within the ranks, the deeper midfield role was often undertaken by Bruno Guimarães, with Joe Willock playing in the LCM role – another position that Tonali is familiar with. Sean Longstaff and Joelinton have been the top two options at Howe’s disposal for the final midfield role, so we may see Tonali take this role as he offers a similar style in terms of contributing both defensively and in attack.
This graph shows us how Tonali has contributed to Milan this season, in comparison to other players in his position. It paints the picture of a player who is strong and reliable when called upon defensively but also likes to get involved in the final third. No stranger to goal contributions, Tonali will be hopeful of surpassing his total of two league goals from 2022/23.
A key aspect of any team who is juggling domestic football with European competition is the element of squad depth. By bringing Tonali into the fold, Newcastle have not only signed a star player who will likely feature every week he’s available, but they’ve also boosted their depth in midfield ranks. As mentioned, Tonali is a multi-talented midfielder, capable of contributing effectively both in and out of possession. Tonali chipped in with eight G/A in Serie A in 2022/23, a very healthy total for a defensive midfielder at a young age.
This first analysis image gives us some insight into his role in Milan’s midfield in terms of positioning, while also demonstrating his tendency to support the attack from a more advanced position. There are a few noteworthy parts to this section, so we will begin with his initial positioning. Both he and his defensive midfield partner tend to locate themselves close to the corresponding full-back to increase wide support when needed. The pair also line up fairly close to each other to add the element of defensive protection for the back four.
This scenario also highlighted Tonali’s attacking tendencies as well as his clever off-the-ball movement, which he has shown time and time again this season. Realising that his team have possession and space to work with on the opposite flank, he bursts forward into the final third to add to Milan’s attacking presence. His timing of the run also makes it difficult to stay with him.
Passing range is, of course, an important factor for a midfielder, and Tonali has no trouble in that department. As you can see from his high percentile rank in the graph from before, he is effective when it comes to dangerous passes and progressive passes – often looking to play the pass that shifts his team up a gear in their attack. This example also highlights his tendency to drift into wide areas to support the possession.
And as you can see from the map above, progressing passing is a key part of Tonali’s game. He has averaged 7.1 passes to the final third per 90 at Milan in 2022/23, and as you can see, a lot of them will have been longer/progressive passes. Most of his efforts come from wider areas too, especially the passes that are fired into the penalty area.
We’ve touched upon his off-the-ball movement and tendency to make bursting runs into more attacking areas – he of course needs the ability to read a situation to pull this off, and he displays that skill in the shot above and the following analysis below. Starting by offering close support to the man on the ball, he quickly realises that he isn’t much help where he is, so takes the risk of making a run in behind the opposition defence as the ball is played across to teammate Rafael Leão…
Tonali continues his run, finding space between opposition defenders, and receives a splendid pass from Leão to find himself clear of opposition defenders, 1v1 with the keeper. While he probably fancied himself to bury this particular chance, he showed that he is selfless when it matters, squaring the ball to Brahim Díaz who puts the chance away. Simple yet extremely effective stuff from Sandro Tonali – or at least, he makes it look simple!
We end the attacking segment of this scout report with a breakdown of a goal he scored during the 2022/23 season, and the reason we have selected this for analysis is that Tonali’s involvement showcases several skills that you should expect to see in his general play next season in a Newcastle shirt.
The goal is a result of an attacking transition, with Tonali receiving the ball in the air thanks to a clearance from the back. He shows composure and awareness to cushion the ball down to a supporting teammate before making that trademark bursting run into the final third – it will be interesting to see if Howe allows this type of run on a consistent basis as it does run the risk of being overrun in midfield in the event of a turnover and transition for the opposition.
After some quick and effective build-up play from his Milan teammates, Tonali, approaching the box, receives a first-time pass, and is met by an opposition defender and goalkeeper, but shows more composure to ignore the pressure and place the ball into the bottom corner. This whole sequence from Tonali is somewhat reminiscent of Steven Gerrard in his heyday.
We have already established that Tonali is efficient in his defending, as evidenced by his high percentile ranking in the graph from earlier. In 2022/23, He averaged 13.96 total duels per 90, with a win rate of 52% – this includes attacking, defensive, and aerial duels. As we will discuss, he is also effective when it comes to recoveries and shows promising signs of fitting in at Newcastle in regards to winning the ball in high areas.
His attack-minded style of play often transfers into his defensive play as well, showing good intensity and execution in high pressing. Leaving his midfield position when it appears safe to do so, he will rush out to join the attacking unit in their high press, which was often triggered when an opposition showed signs of wanting to play out from the back. As the map below shows, he can be effective in a high-press, as well as a counterpress.
For this part of the analysis, we have compared Tonali’s high regains data against that of Bruno Guimarães as he is Newcastle’s go-to defensive midfielder but enjoys engaging in play higher up the pitch too. The numbers reflect that too, with both players posting similar numbers in all three categories in the visual. Incidentally, Sean Longstaff also posted similar numbers in the most recent season, so this could be a sign that Tonali ticks some defensive boxes for the Magpies.
If you’re a Newcastle fan, chances are that you’re just about done pinching yourself at the fact your club has pulled this deal off. If you’re a Milan supporter, you’re probably shocked that you’ve lost him and understandably a little hurt. If you’re a fan of another Premier League club, you’re probably experiencing a mix of excitement for seeing such a talented player put his skills to the test in the Prem, with a hint of jealousy, along with the fear of your club having to face him this season!
This is a statement signing from Eddie Howe & Co. and could be a sign of things to come in terms of bringing in high-profile names.